During the COVID-19 pandemic, a ripple effect of local heroes has emerged.
There are the people on the front lines – the medical professionals, first responders, grocery store employees, pharmacists, and the nonprofits that are feeding and housing Memphians in need.
Then there are the people standing behind those more prominent heroes – the people who supply crucial resources to keep the Mid-South functioning and healthy during these uncertain times.
Memphis-based nexAir, one of the largest distributors of atmospheric gases and welding supplies in the U.S., is one of those suppliers.
Under the leadership of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the company is playing a key role in retrofitting the former Commercial Appeal building at 495 Union Ave. to become the city’s only Corps-built Alternate Care Facility for COVID-19 patients in the Memphis area.
The previously named site at Gateway Shopping Center on Jackson Avenue is now being held in reserve in case the pandemic surge of patients is greater than expected.
“We’re grateful for the opportunity to play such a significant role in supporting our local community through this pandemic,” said Bill Proctor, president of nexAir. “It’s not every day that you’re called upon to deliver something as unique and vital as this facility, but we’ve got the experience and expertise to make it happen and ensure that our city has the necessary resources and capabilities to overcome this challenging situation.”
The Union Avenue facility will be a multi-use hospital with roughly 400 hospital beds for COVID-19 patients.
Proctor and his team will keep the oxygen flowing there, among other key roles.
“We will be supplying the medical oxygen system for the facility, which includes the storage of bulk oxygen, the vaporizers, and the regulators for the liquid oxygen,” Proctor said.
The supply system will include a 6,000-gallon main supply tank as well as a 3,000-gallon reserve tank. That’s enough oxygen to cover a worst-case scenario of a peak demand of 200,000 cubic feet of oxygen per day.
More than 500 people from various industries are working together to have the facility ready for operation on May 14.
“The partnership of federal, state and local governments, working with so many industry contractors, has been amazing,” said Col. Zachary Miller, commander of the Corps of Engineers Memphis District. “Building this Alternate Care Facility in the time frame required by FEMA and the State of Tennessee is possible only because of all their contributions.
“The ability for local businesses to mobilize and surge on this construction has really been the defining reason for its success,” Miller said. “Their efforts help assure that our community is prepared to meet any health care challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic both now and in the future.”
This isn’t the first time nexAir has taken on COVID-19-related work. The company also has outfitted similar temporary “pop-up” medical facilities in Georgia, Florida and other areas of Tennessee. So far, none of them has come close to reaching peak capacity.
Meanwhile, for other areas of the company, business goes on, but not quite as usual.
In nexAir’s three major divisions of medical gases, carbonic gases, and industrial supplies, the demand for medical and carbonic gases obviously has increased during the pandemic, while industrial production numbers are down 15% to 25%, Proctor estimated.
“Our medical cylinder gas production is up roughly 25%,” said Proctor, referring to oxygen tanks and similar products. “Our medical bulk gases are up roughly 14%.”
Additionally, nexAir’s carbonic plant in Millington, which primarily produces carbon dioxide for preserving and shipping food in dry ice, has seen a 36% increase in business. In total, the company’s carbonic gas production has increased by about 18%.
On the medical front lines, nexAir specializes in providing life-sustaining medical oxygen and other durable medical products to clients such as major hospitals, research facilities, long-term care facilities, and in-home care providers.
As a result, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has declared the company an essential business.
Every morning, nexAir drivers load up cylinders of oxygen and biomed equipment, such as ventilators, and deliver them to medical facilities where patients – some of them in treatment for COVID-19 – rely on them to survive.
“We appreciate our vendors like nexAir for recognizing the importance of providing quality products in as timely a manner as possible,” said Larry Fogarty, vice president of supply chain management with Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare.
To ensure consistency and safety in these endeavors, nexAir formed its own cross-functional COVID-19 task force with four main objectives: Protect its employees; stabilize its supply chain to customers, particularly in the health care industry; keep communications lines with customers open to ascertain their needs in rapidly changing times; and develop customer service contingency plans to allow for quick adjustments when needed.
Regarding employee safety, the company has implemented a double-decontamination process when handling compressed gas cylinders and other equipment that have been exposed to COVID-19 patients.
The customer is primarily responsible for decontaminating those materials. Later, at a nexAir facility, employees equipped with Personal Protective Equipment also decontaminate them with antimicrobial wipes.
Yes, it can be a risky business, but lives depend on it, Proctor said.
“I believe that our production employees who are producing these gases and our delivery drivers who are delivering them really are heroes in our company, related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Proctor said. “They are essentially providing life-sustaining products. We are committed to this service and will remain committed to it.”
University of Tennessee Health Science Center faculty will lead the medical team at the Union Avenue facility, helmed by Richard Walker, M.D., associate professor of emergency medicine and chair and director of UTHSC’s emergency medicine residency program.
Regan Williams, M.D., associate professor of surgery and pediatrics at UTHSC and medical director of trauma at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, will be the facility’s chief medical officer. Terri Stewart, MSN, RN, will be the chief nursing officer.